Volvo XC60

Leisure Wheels (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - Text: Ger­hard Horn Photographs: Peet Mocke

World Car of the Year takes on Etosha

The Volvo XC60 is the cur­rent World Car of the Year but the world is a rather big place. We’re sure it’s wor­thy of that ti­tle in Europe, where routes are paved and cat­tle are kept well away from roads but can it still claim the ti­tle of supreme when you take it way out of its com­fort zone?

Our first en­counter with the XC60 was a rel­a­tively non­de­script one and we didn’t get nearly as much time be­hind the wheel of the first test unit as we would have liked. Still, we could tell it was a spe­cial car. You see, the Volvo XC60 is the reign­ing World Car of the Year, which is a huge ac­co­lade. A jury of in­ter­na­tional au­to­mo­tive jour­nal­ists, in­clud­ing two from South Africa, voted the Volvo as the best of the lot.

But this whole ‘World Car of the Year’ ti­tle got us think­ing. It may be an epic ve­hi­cle in Euro­pean coun­tries with silky smooth roads and petrol cleaner than drink­ing water, but can it right­fully claim the throne when you take it deep into Land Cruiser coun­try?

To find out, we de­cided to sub­ject the XC60 to two very dif­fer­ent ex­trem­i­ties.

EX­TREMITY ONE: JO­HAN­NES­BURG

Okay, so to those of us who live here, Jo­han­nes­burg may not seem like an ex­tremity but that’s only be­cause we’ve be­come ac­cus­tomed to the chaos. Drive around Europe or Amer­ica for a week and you’ll re­alise just how dan­ger­ous the av­er­age com­mute in a South African city is.

Apart from pot­holes and poor light­ing, we have to con­tend with un­road­wor­thy ve­hi­cles, drunk driv­ers and the kinds of id­iots who seem to be un­der the im­pres­sion that the law doesn’t ap­ply to them. And we’re not just talk­ing about taxis.

Luck­ily, the XC60 has an ace up its sleeve. The Euro­pean Union de­cided 21 years ago to es­tab­lish the Euro NCAP crash test, as it needed a stan­dard­ised test to see how new cars would cope in the event of an ac­ci­dent.

Prospec­tive buy­ers can look at a car’s safety score to see how well they and their loved ones would fare should the worst hap­pen.

As things cur­rently stand, the XC60 is the safest car in the world, as tested in the Euro NCAP process. For many, that’s rea­son enough to buy it.

It scored 98% in the pro­tec­tion of front pas­sen­gers and, more im­por­tantly, 87% for child oc­cu­pants. It’s only three per­cent­age points ahead of its main ri­vals but when it comes to the most pre­cious pos­ses­sions you have, three points mat­ter a whole lot…

The best part is you don’t have to pay ex­tra for the most im­por­tant safety sys­tems. As stan­dard it’s equipped with City Safety, which brakes the car au­to­mat­i­cally for pedes­tri­ans, cy­clists, an­i­mals and ba­si­cally ev­ery­thing else that might jump in front of the car when you aren’t pay­ing at­ten­tion.

Then there’s the in­tel­li­gent driver in­for­ma­tion sys­tem, lane keep­ing aid, road sign in­for­ma­tion dis­play and rear park as­sist. Heck, it even de­tects when the driver is tired af­ter a long stint be­hind the wheel and sub­tly sug­gests that a break might be in or­der.

On pa­per, it’s an im­pres­sive ve­hi­cle. But it’s the driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence that re­ally sells it. It’s the kind of car you don’t mind spend­ing time in, even if it’s in peak hour traf­fic. You sim­ply sit back in the leather-clad chair that feels as if it was de­signed specif­i­cally for you, safe in the knowl­edge that this Volvo can cope with what­ever hazard Jozi may dish up next.

The Sen­sus in­fo­tain­ment sys­tem is eas­ily the best in its class and the qual­ity of the in­te­rior ma­te­ri­als is im­pec­ca­ble.

It hon­estly feels like a smaller, yet equally lux­u­ri­ous ver­sion of the XC90, which is prob­a­bly the high­est praise we can give it.

EX­TREMITY 2: ETOSHA HEIGHTS

Driv­ing from Joburg to Wind­hoek is hardly a chal­lenge for a prop­erly en­gi­neered ve­hi­cle. It’s more of an en­durance chal­lenge for both driver and pas­sen­ger. How long can they last be­fore back pain, bore­dom or frus­tra­tion bring the jour­ney to a halt?

In a car as com­fort­able as the XC60, Wind­hoek is just around the cor­ner. Even if that cor­ner is 1 400km away.

From Wind­hoek, we set off for Etosha Heights and ar­rived there just

in time for an epic sun­set, some gi­ant-sized steaks and a few cold Tafel beers.

Former reg­i­men­tal sergeant ma­jor (RSM) of the South African Na­tional De­fence Force, Koos Moor­croft – and one of SA’s most leg­endary spe­cial forces sol­diers with 40 years ser­vice – was our host. We felt pretty safe in his com­pany.

Then we heard that fa­mil­iar roar of a wild lion. It sounded close, which made us slightly un­com­fort­able. Sud­denly the two-me­tre elec­tri­fied fence sur­round­ing our abode seemed com­i­cally in­ad­e­quate. The Volvo might be the safest car in the world, but the press re­lease didn’t men­tion any­thing about it be­ing lion proof.

We got into bed early. The rough-road driv­ing would start the next day and we were armed with a Swedish SUV on gravel un­friendly 20-inch al­loys. At least we had brought an ex­tra spare wheel, just in case.

Then again, no­body was too keen on chang­ing a tyre in this lion-in­fested place.

RID­ING A CUSH­ION OF AIR

Namib­ian gravel roads have a dis­tinct loathing of low-pro­file tyres, and sharp rocks cut thin side­walls to smithereens. While our Volvo’s 20-inch tyres pro­vided ex­cel­lent grip in the cor­ners, they were as out of place in Namibia as a nun in a bikini.

Punc­tures are just one part of the prob­lem. Be­cause there’s so lit­tle air be­tween rim and road, the ride on th­ese low-pro­file num­bers tends to be hard, jar­rish and un­com­fort­able.

Our T6 was equipped with the op­tional air sus­pen­sion. It’s R26 750 ex­tra but we reckon it is money ex­tremely well spent. Un­like older air sus­pen­sion sys­tems which were a bit wonky and tended to crash and wal­low even long af­ter the pot­holes have sub­sided, th­ese new-fan­gled units can adapt within mil­lisec­onds.

The re­sult is a com­fort­able and com­pli­ant ride and pre­dictable han­dling, de­spite the lack of a lengthy side­wall. No mat­ter what the sur­face, the XC60’s air sus­pen­sion will adapt to cope.

In de­fault Com­fort mode, which gives you 213mm of ground clear­ance, we found this to be plenty on Namibia’s well-kept gravel roads as well as the slightly rougher sec­tions within Etosha Heights.

The Off-road set­ting raises the Volvo by an­other 40mm, which we found use­ful for the tech­ni­cal sec­tions we had to drive through to get to open fields and water holes. This set­ting also locks the drive in a 50/50 split be­tween the front and rear axles at speeds of up to 40km/h. If you ex­ceed that speed, the Volvo au­to­mat­i­cally re­turns to the de­fault Com­fort mode.

There’s also Eco mode, which drops the Volvo by 10mm (to 203mm) to re­duce drag at higher speeds, while Dy­namic drops the ground clear­ance to 193mm to re­duce the cen­tre of grav­ity.

That’s usu­ally where the ben­e­fits end but the Volvo’s air sus­pen­sion is use­ful even when the car isn’t mov­ing.

When it’s parked, it can drop by 35mm to make it eas­ier to get into and out of the ve­hi­cle.

And, fi­nally, the proof that this car was thor­oughly thought through be­fore it was built; you can lower the rear sus­pen­sion (50mm) via a but­ton neatly lo­cated in the boot. Why? Ever try load­ing some­thing heavy into the back of a tall SUV?

But it’s not just the sus­pen­sion that changes ev­ery time you se­lect a dif­fer­ent driv­ing mode. Each of the modes has its own unique set-up for the steer­ing, brakes, en­gine, gear­box and all-wheel drive.

In Com­fort, for ex­am­ple, you have ac­cess to all the en­gine power, though it takes a de­cent amount of throt­tle in­put to ac­cess it. The all-wheel drive is also on full alert, though we rarely felt it in­ter­vene even at higher speeds.

As men­tioned, the XC60’s Off-road mode is avail­able only up to 40km/h. The steer­ing feels ex­tra light and the throt­tle re­sponse is re­laxed by a fair amount. In this mode, the Volvo does most of the hard work, which is prob­a­bly what most cus­tomers who pay close to a bar for their lux­ury SUV ex­pect. This mode also in­cludes hill de­scent con­trol.

We ar­rived at an axle twister. With Off-road mode se­lected, we slowly edged for­ward. First one of the front wheels lifted... then the right rear wheel de­parted from terra firma. Of course, this is no pukka off-roader, so wheel travel is not its forte. That’s why it has smart elec­tron­ics and with the com­puter del­e­gat­ing 400Nm of torque in a most ap­pro­pri­ate fash­ion, the Volvo sim­ply kept on mov­ing.

Mean­while pho­tog­ra­pher Peet was do­ing his best aca­cia tree im­per­son­ation while snapping away, keen not to at­tract any lion. Thank­fully, no lion crashed the party but a male os­trich seemed rather up­set about our pres­ence and am­bled over, keen for a rum­ble in the jun­gle.

The male os­trich clearly had not heard of Koos Moor­croft be­fore. “Voet­sek you

&%%$$$!” com­manded Koos in his best RSM voice. This was ac­com­pa­nied by a fly­ing rock, aimed, not to hit the os­trich, but to serve as warn­ing. And the warn­ing was heeded, the ter­ri­to­rial male re­treat­ing to the side of his fe­male com­pan­ion.

Although we’re not flu­ent in os­trich, we’re pretty sure she scolded him with a “I told you it was him! But noooo, you al­ways know bet­ter! You and your ego... gmmpf!”

By mid-morn­ing, the Volvo’s out­side tem­per­a­ture was show­ing 37⁰C, which meant it was time to re­treat to the shade for a si­esta. We’re sure all the an­i­mals did the same, too.

Once again, Namibia pro­vided an as­tound­ing sun­set, made bet­ter by de­cent com­pany and the knowl­edge that we’d be driv­ing back the next day in the safest and one of the most com­fort­able ve­hi­cles cur­rently on sale in South Africa.

IN FOR THE LONG HAUL

The next morn­ing, Koos Moor­croft had other mat­ters to at­tend to. Mat­ters that were far more im­por­tant than our photographs, it must be added.

So we bade our farewells and left the tran­quil­lity of Etosha Heights for the long slog home. With around 1 800km to cover, and our mu­sic playlists on re­peat for the fourth time, we had am­ple time to dis­cuss the Volvo, the World Car of the Year.

First, we noted that we had sur­vived hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres of Namibia’s dirt roads with­out pick­ing up a punc­ture, de­spite the 20-inch rims. The ride on even the worst gravel sec­tions had been amaz­ingly com­fort­able and com­pli­ant, cour­tesy of the air sus­pen­sion set-up.

Over­all, this Volvo had im­pressed us no end on this jour­ney. It was not dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand why the XC60 has re­ceived so much praise around the globe.

Neg­a­tive com­ments? Er... ah wait, we have a few!

The petrol en­gine can be thirsty if you tap into the 235kW and 400Nm, but petrol engines seem to be the way for­ward and if you drive sen­si­bly it’s not bad at all. Af­ter some ex­per­i­men­tion, we set­tled on a true 116km/h in the lower Eco mode on the open road and, mea­sured tank to tank (not the trip com­puter reading), the Volvo sipped just 8.3 litres/100km.

In the com­bined cy­cle you can ex­pect around 9.8 litres/100km. So yes, the diesel ver­sion will prob­a­bly drink a bit less, but the diesel also doesn’t have 235kW and doesn’t spin to 6 000r/min.

The Volvo’s fancy head’s up dis­play (HUD) – an­other op­tional ex­tra – proved a moot point. In the dark, on a bad gravel road, that dis­play is pro­ject­ing in the wind­screen ex­actly where you want to be look­ing for sharp rocks that want to kill city-slicker 20-inch tyres. Thank­fully, the sys­tem can be eas­ily de­ac­ti­vated by swip­ing the Sen­sus screen to the right, and to turn the HUD off un­til you want to use it again.

Fi­nally, there’s the price. The list price is rea­son­able enough at R775 100, but this model, fit­ted with vir­tu­ally ev­ery ac­ces­sory in the book, would re­tail at R951 984, which puts it up against some pretty se­ri­ous hard­ware. This is the most ex­pen­sive sce­nario though and we reckon few own­ers will tick so many ac­ces­sory boxes.

We’d prob­a­bly just go for the R26 750 air sus­pen­sion op­tion. And if we’re re­ally feel­ing gen­er­ous and self-in­dul­gent, we’d opt for the premium pack in­scrip­tion, which will add an­other R70 000 to the ask­ing price. This does in­clude the ex­cel­lent premium-qual­ity Bow­ers & Wilkins sound sys­tem, key­less en­try, park as­sist and and heated seats.

IT CAN GET SPORTY, TOO

In the sporty Dy­namic mode this Volvo is very un-Volvo-ish.

Volvos are sup­posed to be driven in a re­spect­ful man­ner, by es­teemed mem­bers of the com­mu­nity. They aren’t loutish, or meant for ro­bot rac­ing. Well, in Dy­namic mode you’d want to go ro­bot rac­ing in the T6!

The four-cylin­der 2.0-litre petrol en­gine is both tur­bocharged and su­per­charged. It pro­duces 235kW and 400Nm of torque, which you never re­ally feel in any of the other driv­ing modes, mostly be­cause you’re too busy be­ing re­fined, com­fort­able and safety con­scious.

In Dy­namic mode, the eight-speed au­to­matic gear­box holds onto the gears for longer, the throt­tle re­sponse is much more sen­si­tive and the steer­ing weighs up a fair amount. It’s not as brutish as, say, a Honda Civic Type R... more like an over­sized VW Golf GTI that’s so safety con­scious it won’t let you drive it if you are not buck­led up (re­ally) and the top speed is lim­ited to 200km/h.

The award-win­ning twin­charged en­gine is a true mod­ern tech­no­log­i­cal mar­vel. The aim of this pow­er­plant was to pro­vide a more ef­fi­cient al­ter­na­tive to big­ger and heav­ier V6 and V8 pow­er­plants, but with still enough grunt on tap. A su­per­charger pro­vides more low en­gine speed torque, and the tur­bocharger pro­vides big­ger boost at higher rev­o­lu­tions. The re­sult is a lag-free surge of grunt, all the way through the rev range.

AND IT CAN DRIVE IT­SELF! WELL, SORT OF

Volvo’s semi-au­tonomous driv­ing tech­nol­ogy is called Pi­lot As­sist and it’s not a fully au­tonomous driv­ing tool (yet) but rather an ad­vanced form of cruise con­trol.

As old-school driv­ers, it took us a while to get com­fort­able with this sys­tem. Af­ter decades of be­ing solely re­spon­si­ble for the task of steer­ing a car, leaving the task of steer­ing to a com­puter is not as easy as you’d think.

But dur­ing a 4 000km road trip one tends to have some spare time at hand so we did our best to em­brace this new tech­nol­ogy and get bet­ter ac­quainted with Pi­lot As­sist. Now, af­ter spend­ing many kilo­me­tres us­ing it, we reckon it’s worth the ex­tra moolah, if only for the added safety net.

Pi­lot As­sist is use­less when the lines on the road aren’t clear. But en­gage it on a road with clearly marked lines, like a high­way, and the Volvo will steer, brake and ac­cel­er­ate, all by it­self. That is, as long as the driver’s hand or hands re­main in con­tact with the steer­ing wheel.

Let go com­pletely, and the XC60 will hap­pily steer it­self, but only for a short time. Then an alarm sounds, warn­ing the driver to put his hands back on the tiller.

If you still keep on wav­ing your hands in the air at other mo­torists, the sys­tem will au­to­mat­i­cally dis­en­gage Pi­lot As­sist and the cruise con­trol func­tion, slowly de­cel­er­at­ing. The lane keep as­sist sys­tem will, if there are clear lines on the road, keep the Volvo from driv­ing off the road. If there are no lines, and you still don’t pay proper at­ten­tion (which is rather un­likely), you and the Volvo might end up in a ditch.

An­other bonus is that, when Pi­lot As­sist is ac­ti­vated, you can over­ride the steer­ing

in­puts with­out the Volvo throw­ing a tantrum. This is good thing.

IS THIS THE BEST CAR IN THE WORLD?

The world is a big place and stuff that’s im­por­tant in Europe doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mat­ter over here. Emis­sions fig­ures is a prime ex­am­ple. In the United King­dom it’s the hottest of top­ics, but over here we couldn’t care less. Do you know how many harm­ful ex­haust gases your car emits per kilo­me­tre?

Luck­ily, the XC60 pushes all the right uni­ver­sal but­tons. Ev­ery­one likes a good-look­ing SUV with lots of power that also hap­pens to be fru­gal when it needs to be. And let’s not for­get about the safety, which is par­tic­u­larly rel­e­vant in a coun­try with 35 road deaths per day.

Look­ing at it, you might not think it’s a proper over­lan­der and you’d be right. If you are go­ing to tra­verse Namibia’s worst roads on a daily ba­sis, the Volvo just won’t be as happy as a bakkie or a lad­der-framed SUV would be. Not with those 20-inch wheels, at least.

But if you are a week­end war­rior who wants a safe and ca­pa­ble SUV to trans­port your moun­tain bike to that se­cluded track, ac­cessed via a rough dirt road, then this Volvo can do the job, and then some.

It may have been de­signed in Swe­den and funded by China (through hold­ing com­pany Geely), but it’s pretty much home in Africa, too – no mat­ter whether it’s in Joburg or Etosha Heights.

It re­ally is wor­thy of that World Car of the Year ti­tle, we reckon.

This page: Smooth, mod­ern and de­cid­edly good look­ing… the Volvo XC60 strikes a pretty pose as the sun rises over the Etosha land­scape.

Above: For a car rid­ing on fancy 20-inch al­loy wheels, the XC60 com­fort lev­els are ex­tremely high on gravel roads.

Be­low: For a city-slick­ing SUV, the XC60 is to­tally at home in the mostly de­serted parts of Namibia.

Clock­wise from above: Get­ting the Volvo to pose pretty like this re­quired go­ing off the es­tab­lished gravel roads. With the air sus­pen­sion set to off-road mode, it proved to be no prob­lem at all. Im­pres­sive wheel ar­tic­u­la­tion for a city dweller. One of the best in­te­rior in the busi­ness. The Sen­sus sys­tem is easy to use, the ma­te­ri­als of a high qual­ity and the safety sys­tems next level. Far right: The sun sets af­ter a full day of driv­ing around the re­serve. Ger­hard wanted to hold hands, but Oom Koos said no.

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